Although the constitutional countdown to Lebanon’s presidential elections is now under way and will continue until May 25, the Lebanese people are still in the dark as to who the next president will be, despite the fact that many names are being mentioned.
Why? Because the Lebanese—who have always delusively believed they were the masters of their fate—are waiting for the watchword from influential international and regional players.
Incidentally, the Lebanese system is certainly not a dictatorship, yet it is not a democracy either, since a real democratic system must meet several standards that Lebanon does not. These include, first, the equality of all citizens and national components in terms of rights and duties—which does not apply in Lebanon, whose constitution entrenches differences and inequality between the citizens and between religious and sectarian components.
Second, the electoral system is largely arbitrary in terms of drawing up the boundaries of electoral constituencies. Some constituencies may consist of two districts, and others may be part of divided districts.
Third, it remains unclear whether the electoral system is based on a quota system or whether it is a representative democracy. The Taif Agreement ensures equality between Christian and Muslim members of parliament on a consensual basis, regardless of their real numbers.
Fourth, Lebanon is a small entity bordered to the north and east by Syria—whose ruling elites have opposed the idea of their tiny neighbor enjoying full independence from Damascus since their independence in 1943—and to the south by Israel, which since its establishment in 1948 has been in an official state of war with Lebanon, except for a short period in the early 1980s. In other words, the relationships between Lebanon and its two neighboring countries has never enjoyed anything resembling normality.
Fifth, the fragile national consensus in Lebanon and the failure of its leadership and institutions to promote the concepts of “citizenship” and the “institutional state” have weakened the idea of a unified Lebanese identity and common destiny. This state of affairs has given various Lebanese factions enough excuse to seek external help against their compatriots. These decisions to resort to external players have actually been based on firm convictions, and not necessarily because these parties were collaborators or agents—an accusation most factions have thrown at one another from time to time.
In light of this reality, the Lebanese system is not in line with the requirements of a customary democracy, but is rather a mechanism based on settlements, or sometimes deals, themselves based either on regional understandings or on the dominance of this player or that.
Since the days of Bishara Al-Khouri, the first president of independent Lebanon, there has been a critical balancing act in choosing the president. Indeed, even before this, the competition between Khouri and his Constitutional Bloc on the one side and Émile Eddé and his National Bloc on the other was more than just a conflict between a pan-Arabist and a Lebanese nationalist. It was part of the wider conflict of interests between what were then the two mandatory powers in the region, Britain and France, before the Suez crisis brought the US–Soviet competition to the foreground.
In 1958, in the thick of the Cold War, Anglophile president Camille Chamoun was unable to seek a second term in the face of a popular opposition supported by Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Egypt; subsequently, a US–Nasserist understanding managed to hand the Lebanese presidency to army chief Fuad Chehab.
In 1968, however, Nasser’s defeat in the Six-Day War the year before contributed to the electoral triumph of a Right-wing Christian coalition in the Christian areas and its dominance over the Christian public, while Palestinian resistance organizations inherited the Nasserist mantle in the Muslim street. This sharp division added to regional confusion, which led to presidential elections in which Suleiman Frangieh defeated Elias Sarkis by one vote in 1970. Before the end of Frangieh’s term, however, the sharp divisions and confusion had deteriorated into the Lebanese civil war, bringing with it the direct intervention of Syria and then Israel and, more recently, Iran.
All the presidents since the civil war were “elected” to office against the background of “exceptional circumstances,” settlements and deals, which rarely reflected the Lebanese people’s free will. Today, there is much talk about the next president, and every side is proposing its candidate as a “primary choice.” This is, of course, normal, but each of these sides realizes that the Lebanese people do not have the final say.
Here, one may recall that sitting President Michel Suleiman was “elected” in the aftermath of the Doha Agreement that aimed to end a year-and-a-half-long occupation of Beirut by Hezbollah and its allies. The next president, if “elected,” will only be named in line with some settlement or deal brought about by regional and international pressures and negotiations.
The March 8 Alliance, with its solid Shi’ite base, has its Maronite Christian candidates who believe in the “alliance of minorities” in the face of the region’s Sunni environment. On the other hand, its opponent, the March 14 Alliance, which has Sunni backing, also has its Maronite Christian candidates adopting the “sovereignty” slogan that distances the country, at least in theory, from regional conflicts.
On the Christian level, the Maronite Church has been keen to say it is equidistant from the two blocs. Nevertheless, most of Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi’s comments and stances indicate that he is much closer to the “alliance of minorities” and the March 8 Alliance’s candidates, particularly Michel Aoun, who he describes as a “strong Christian candidate.”
Regionally, the Syrian–Iranian dimension is reflected within Lebanon by Hezbollah’s military hegemony over the country and the huge influence Damascus and Tehran wield even within the Lebanese state’s institutions, particularly the security apparatus. For their part, the regional powers opposed to Iran’s regional project do not have an equivalent military and security power capable of achieving a state of balance that may lead to real consensus.
Finally, as pertains to the international dimension, the US stance towards the Syrian crisis and the Washington–Tehran rapprochement practically dispel any doubt about America’s lack of desire to prevent the hegemony of the Tehran–Damascus axis over Lebanon, given that it has already given Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq.
So far, it is clear that the momentum is in the hands of Hezbollah and its backers, with the absence of any intention on the part of the US of reining them in.
This will surely push Lebanon deeper and deeper into the regional confrontation, which will drive a wide segment of the Lebanese people into despair and then repulsion, violence and—God forbid—terrorism. This is the last thing the people of Lebanon and the region need.